©2014 Alex Garcia
©2014 Alex Garcia
News that Cuba and U.S. might finally normalize relations has put my normal plans to a stop today. I can’t stop thinking about my relationship to the island.
Several years ago, before working for the Tribune’s bureau in Havana, I was a photographer in Orange Country for the Los Angeles Times. I had only been there 3-4 years but had a decision to make. I was in my 30’s, realizing that it was now or never if I was ever going to act on a passion to deepen my connection to my father’s homeland. I could ask for a leave of absence for 6 months to pursue a study program in Havana, or leave the paper and do the same. Gratefully, the editor at the time, Colin Crawford, approved my return (those were different days). I knew that if he hadn’t, I was single and could make it on my own – a “Hail Mary” pass.
It was an incredible trip, and if you ever are thinking to yourself whether to pursue a personal project that could interrupt your life, know that it could be now or never. I went as a student and stayed true to that mission by largely foregoing photography in order to forge connections to family that had been dormant for decades because of our governments’ political divide. I wanted to see what I could experience beyond for the typical narratives that you know about the country.
But I stumbled into history twice, completely by accident. The first was not long after I arrived, when it was announced that the remains of Che Guevara would be returned from Bolivia in a procession that would move across the island. His remains would also lie in state in a very small coffin, where thousands of Cubans waited in the longest lines you’ve ever seen to pay their respects. Since then, there was some doubt about whether it was all just a symbolic ceremony.
The second was the visit of Pope John Paul II. All visitors with U.S. passports had to leave the country prior to the visit, but I was able to return for the week-long event with my student visa in order to witness all the positivity in the Catholic community. From a sad and mourning event to one filled with hope and joy. It was an amazing roller-coaster of emotion. In those days, there wasn’t an internet and this was all on film. My pictures have largely never been seen.
A few years later, however, my experience proved invaluable. The Tribune Company won approval to open a bureau on the island and I hopped to it, staying three months.
As a child, I could not understand why I could not visit my family in Cuba. It affected me so much, apparently, that when my grandmother made her one and only visit, I apparently declared I would see them in Cuba.
Years later, when I finally did make the first trip while at the Los Angeles Times, I rolled into my father’s hometown in a Soviet-made Lada taxi. It was dark and I could barely see the people at the end of the sidewalk outside the family home. I heard the voice of my aunt, the one who had accompanied my grandmother on her one and only visit to the U.S.
She said, “When I heard one of our family members in Chicago was coming for a visit, I knew it was you, Alex.”